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Indigenous Mexican Migrants to American Farms

[ 3 ] September 21, 2015 |

Mixtec Immigrant Picking Strawberries

David Bacon, who has done so much great work over the years exposing the plight of Mexican migrants to the U.S., has an excellent piece on how so many of the farmworkers in the U.S.–and more specifically the farmworker activists–are indigenous Mexicans, primarily from poor regions of Oaxaca, the state in southern Mexico where my wife does her academic research.

Agribusiness farming started in San Quintin in the 1970s, as it did in many areas of northern Mexico, to supply the U.S. market with winter tomatoes and strawberries. Baja California had few inhabitants then, so growers brought workers from southern Mexico, especially indigenous Mixtec and Triqui families from Oaxaca. Today an estimated 70,000 indigenous migrant workers live in labor camps notorious for their bad conditions. Many of the conditions are violations of Mexican law.

Once indigenous workers had been brought to the border, they began to cross it to work in fields in the U.S. Today the bulk of the farm labor workforce in California’s strawberry fields comes from the same migrant stream that is on strike in Baja California. So does the migrant labor force picking berries in Washington State, where workers went on strike two years ago.

Two of the 500 strikers at Sakuma Farms were teenagers Marcelina Hilario from San Martin Itunyoso and Teofila Raymundo from Santa Cruz Yucayani. Both started working in the fields with their parents, and today, like many young people in indigenous migrant families, they speak English and Spanish – the languages of school and the culture around them. But Raymundo also speaks her native Triqui and is learning Mixteco, while Hilario speaks Mixteco, is studying French, and thinking about German.

“I’ve been working with my dad since I was 12,” Raymundo remembers. “I’ve seen them treat him bad, but he comes back because he needs this job. Once after a strike here, we came up all the way from California the next season, and they wouldn’t hire us. We had to go looking for another place to live and work that year. That’s how I met Marcelina.” They both accused the company of refusing to give them better jobs keeping track of the berries picked by workers – positions that only went to young white workers. “When I see people treat us badly, I don’t agree with that,” Hilario added. “I think you have to say something.”

For these workers, Spanish is not their first language. They are discriminated against in Mexico–perhaps not to the same degree as Native Americans in the United States, but this is mostly because of the reservation system in the US and the sheer number of indigenous people in Mexico–and are taking the hardest jobs in the United States when they migrate. Many of these indigenous villages are almost completely devoid of people between the ages of 15 and 50 except during Fiesta when people come back if they can. This discrimination is trans-national, as they are likely to be undocumented, may lack Spanish language skills not to mention English (although this is increasingly less common among younger people), and have little capital–financial or cultural–to be upwardly mobile in either country. But they are willing to fight for better lives. Progressives do a terrible job of recognizing indigenous issues in the U.S., not to mention Mexico, but we also have to recognize when we think about immigration that indigenous status is a really important part of that.


Wage Theft Enforcement in California

[ 16 ] September 20, 2015 |


California is leading what should become a federal law to crack down on wage theft:

The bill, known as SB 588, was sponsored by state Senator Kevin de León of Los Angeles. It would allow California’s labor commissioner to place a lien on the property of an employer cited for wage theft.

It would also help prevent cited employers from skipping out on paying penalties and back wages by requiring them to post a bond of at least $50,000 to continue doing business. It would also prohibit the company from closing down and re-opening with a different name.

“Stealing the pay of employees who don’t make that much money to begin with is unconscionable. It takes food off their tables and makes it difficult – if not impossible – to provide for their families,” said De León in an emailed statement. “It also violates the fundamental promise of an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. With SB 588 we can give the Labor Commissioner the tools necessary to enforce the law for the workers and target the bad actors to level the playing field for honest businesses.”

As I’ve said repeatedly, the only way to deal with employers and corporations is to punish them where it hurts. Forcing employers to post bonds is one way to do that. For some, it wouldn’t matter that much because of their large amount of capital, but most of the employers engaging in wage theft are lower end businesses like nail salons. So this would threaten them with really hard times if they don’t comply. There is potential here to move employee rights forward in a meaningful way.

The Media and the Economy

[ 35 ] September 19, 2015 |

Neil Irwin had a piece on the disconnect between media coverage of the economy and the economy as actually experienced by everyday Americans:

If your entire understanding of the economy comes from headlines about the latest economic data, you would be forgiven for thinking these are the best of times. The unemployment rate is down to 5.1 percent, after all!

If your entire understanding of the economy comes from what is going on in financial markets, you would be forgiven for thinking the same. The stock market, its recent dip notwithstanding, is still not far from all-time highs!

That’s what makes the latest annual data on incomes, released by the Census Bureau on Wednesday morning, an important corrective.

The median American household in 2014 had a lower income, in inflation-adjusted terms, than it did in 2013. The $53,657 the household in the middle of the income distribution earned last year was down 1.5 percent from the year before, though the census said that shift was not statistically significant.

But even if that drop is a statistical blip and you assume that middle-class incomes were really flat, flat isn’t anything to celebrate in the current environment. The 2014 real median income number is 6.5 percent below its 2007, pre-crisis level. It is 7.2 percent below the number in 1999.

A middle-income American family, in other words, makes substantially less money in inflation-adjusted terms than it did 15 years ago. And there is no evidence that is reversing. Those families lost ground in 2014. And as we’ve reported previously, the data on wages in 2015 so far does not suggest there is a meaningful acceleration on the way.

The media coverage of the economy is shameful. So much of it is focused on the wealthy. The constant updating of the stock market, whether on CNN or NPR, is perhaps the most egregious symbol. This has nothing to do with the lives of most of us. As we have seen the last few years, the stock market can skyrocket while most of us live lives of making ends meet. But since the 1980s at least the stock market has been seen as a game we can all play. In the 1990s and then again before 2007, the mania was big enough that a lot of middle class were investing and thinking they were going to get rich off it. Didn’t quite happen that way. Meanwhile, the stock market actually rises the more working people are struggling, since layoffs and low wages and outsourcing mean more profits for the investors.

Meanwhile, as Irwin writes, even with unemployment numbers slightly down (although still not counting those who have left the job market entirely, those who are underemployed, and those who have to put together 2-3 jobs to survive, making this a pretty unhelpful statistic gamed to make the economy look better than it is), wages are terrible and aren’t recovering. Beginning with Occupy and now extending into the Fight for $15 and state-level minimum wage campaigns, people are organizing around fighting these problems. But while the media might cover some of it, it turns back to the stock market as quickly as possible. After all, NPR’s Marketplace needs to assure listeners that capitalism is as healthy as ever.

This Day in Labor History: September 19, 1977

[ 52 ] September 19, 2015 |

On September 19, 1977, the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company shut down its operations, laying off approximately 4100 workers. This event, which became known as Black Monday, was emblematic of the deindustrialization decimating the Youngstown economy and dooming it and cities like it to long-term decline and entrenched poverty it has not recovered from today.

Youngstown Sheet and Tube opened in 1900, one of many heavy industries establishing themselves throughout cities in the Midwest and Northeast in the Gilded Age. This company helped make Youngstown a steel town. U.S. Steel had large operations there. Republic Steel did as well. These steel mills made Youngstown. It was only a small town before the Civil War, growing from 3000 in 1860 to 45,000 in 1900 and 167,000 in 1940. Youngstown soon became the nation’s second biggest producer of steel, only behind Pittsburgh. The city became a home to thousands of immigrants, particularly Italians, Croatians, and Slovaks, who migrated for the brutally hard but comparatively remunerative work, at least compared to their home nations. But that doesn’t mean they were satisfied with their low pay, long hours, unsafe working conditions, and lack of a voice on the job. The fight to unionize these and the rest of the nation’s steel factories had been a long, hard, and even deadly struggle. But the success of the United Steelworkers of America in the 1940s transformed this hardscrabble town into one where hard work was still central to its identity, but where hard work also paid good wages with benefits that would raise workers into the middle class. It also increasingly attracted an African-American and Latino workforce; by 1977, 23 percent of Youngstown Steel and Tube workers were racial minorities.


By the 1970s, the jobs were disappearing from Youngstown quickly. Youngstown Steel and Tube was sold to the Lykes Corporation, a shipping conglomerate based in New Orleans and who had little interest in running a factory that was struggling in the face of international competition. On September 19, 1977, the 4100 workers showed up on the job, only to be told they were being laid off. Over the next several weeks, they experienced their final day on the job and for many, their final day working in a steel mill. That was the end of not only an era of work, but of a way of life and a community identity. Throughout this period, the USWA continued representing its members as well as possible. But in the aftermath of the 1959 strike, the government and the industries that relied on steel began looking for international competition to make up the gap for the periodic shortages caused by frequent strikes. At the same time, American allies in Japan and South Korea began producing a lot of steel in modern mills for low prices. Soon, not only was the USWA cowed from more strikes, but the steel companies found themselves in a rapidly declining industry. American steel mills innovated and remained quite productive, but between 1969 and 1978, employment in American steel declined by 17 percent, a loss of 95,000 jobs.

If this was the only factory to close, Youngstown might have recovered. But the combination of foreign competition and newly unrestrained capital mobility meant it was repeated over and over. In 1979, the Brier Hill mill closed. In 1980, U.S. Steel closed its Ohio and McDonald Works. In 1985, Republic Steel shuttered its Youngstown mill. 50,000 workers in Youngstown lost their jobs during these years, in steel, other industries, and the stores and shops that relied upon steel wages for an economically healthy community. By 1992, only about 1000 people worked in Youngstown steel mills, compared to 40,000 after World War II. With companies able to close at any time without giving workers any time to prepare, it could be devastating. George Chonock was 62 years old when Youngstown Steel and Tube told him on a Monday that his last day would be Thursday. He had 3 days to prepare. Of course there was nothing he could do in that time. Companies also started letting workers know plants were closing by announcing at the bargaining table for the next contract negotiations, forcing USWA officials to spread the news, a last slap in the face of the unions they always hated.

As has happened more often than you’d think, local community members, in this case led by churches, tried to buy one of the old steel mills and run them as workers’ cooperatives. But this failed pretty quickly as the federal government refused to give the effort funding. People fought in other ways. When U.S. Steel shut its operations, workers occupied the company headquarters in Pittsburgh. But all U.S. Steel really had to do was wait them out. The companies had all the power here. A coalition of religious and union leaders filed a lawsuit, arguing for a new form of eminent domain that prioritized community property over private property that would stop plants from closing immediately like this. This went nowhere but is a really great idea and is part of the package of ideas we need to stop the New Gilded Age with extreme capital mobility.


Conservatives, including the business leaders of Youngstown, responded with contempt for the workers. Local business leaders invited conservatives like Michael Novak and Irving Kristol to come give talks about how what the workers were really experiencing was creative destruction that they would soon overcome if they were deserving. Major news publications basically reported the same story. Business Week took the opportunity to blame environmentalists, even though pollution controls had nothing to do with it, despite the EPA telling steel mills to stop dumping wastes into the Mahoning River. Meanwhile in the real world, community decline set in fast. Between 1970 and 2000, the population of Youngstown fell from 141,000 to 82,000. Today it has about 65,000 people. By the mid-1980s, Youngstown had the nation’s highest arson rate. Enormous stretches of the city are abandoned. The sewer system does not work properly because it was planned for growth and decline means not enough water flows through to wash the wastes away, and then when heavy rains fall, the dilapidated system discharges into lakes in the city’s parks. The steel companies and their descendants have not taken responsibility for the long-term pollution they inflicted upon the city. And of course, this all inspired the famous Bruce Springsteen song.

I borrowed from a few different sources for this post, including Steven High, Industrial Sunset: The Making of North America’s Rustbelt, 1969-1984 and the essay by John Russo and Sherry Lee Linkon in Jefferson Cowie and Joseph Heathcott, eds., Beyond the Ruins: The Meanings of Deindustrialization.

This is the 158th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Egypt and Organized Labor

[ 13 ] September 18, 2015 |


Given how little coverage organized labor in the United States receives in this country, it’s hardly surprising than when talking about international events, the news media really ignores labor. But of course the internal dynamics of other nations has a profound effect on the labor movements of those nations. That includes Egypt. This is an outstanding report on how the military government that took over in 2013 has repressed organized labor. The whole thing is worth reading, but here are the key points:

Between 2004 and 2013, Egypt witnessed a wave of labor strikes and protest unlike anything seen since the late 1940s, peaking in the January 2011 revolution.

After the revolution, the state offered no concessions in laws and institutional arrangements regarding freedom of association, the right to strike, or a minimum wage—which had been demands of labor activists and independent unionists.

Since June 2013, the state has stepped up its repression of labor protest and strikes.

The rising repression has gone hand in hand with calls for national unity against terrorism and in support of the current regime. Social protest and labor strikes are viewed as treasonous.

The regime is adamant about reimposing the structures of the old Nasserist state. It seeks to bring together trade unions under a state-dominated federation of unions, while placing extraordinary restrictions on industrial action.

At the same time, the state wants to liberalize the economy at the expense of workers, which would mean upholding political Nasserism but ignoring economic Nasserism.

The current situation is unsustainable in the long term. The drivers of the January revolution remain entrenched. Workers are still economically and politically marginalized. Real incomes are declining and previous gains are threatened with future privatizing of state-owned enterprises, downsizing of the government bureaucracy, and increasing informal labor in the private sector.

The future of the labor and trade union movement is not clear. In the short term, the movement is weakened and likely to wane.

There is no doubt that workers have gained a significant amount of experience in the past decade, and that the instruments of repression cannot erase that experience from their memory. This could someday form the basis for trade unions that truly represent Egypt’s workers.


[ 22 ] September 17, 2015 |


The United States has not passed comprehensive labor law reform that was pro-worker since 1938. 77 years is a long time. Democrats are now proposing a law to change that.

The Workplace Action for a Growing Economy (WAGE) Act, which Democrats introduced Wednesday, adds hefty monetary penalties for violations of workers’ rights to collectively organize, whether to join a union or simply to improve conditions in the workplace. It also provides for injunctions to force employers to quickly re-hire workers if they were fired unjustly, undocumented or not. And it allows workers to sue in federal court for damages and attorneys fees, which they’re able to do under other labor and civil rights statutes, but not the NLRA.

That’s a departure from the labor movement’s most recent effort, back in 2009, when it narrowly failed to pass the Employee Free Choice Act — or “card check,” which would have allowed workers to join when a majority sign cards in favor of doing so. The WAGE Act is a broader approach.

“There’s a sense that this is about workers, not about unions,” says Harvard Law professor Benjamin Sachs of the new proposal. “EFCA, that’s a union bill. If you think about the Fight for $15 [an hour], this would apply to those workers.” That’s important, he says, because it could draw a larger base of support.

“When unions succeed politically is when they push for things that are for all workers,” Sachs says, “and do poorly when they push for things that are just for unions.”

Richard Kahlenberg and Moshe Marvit have a more in-depth analysis of what this all means.

The WAGE Act would give workers the same remedies as employees whose civil rights are violated: the ability not just to get their jobs and back pay, which is the rule now, but to win punitive damages, to engage in legal discovery that gives lawyers access to an employer’s internal files, and win attorneys’ fees when workers prevail. Employees also can get a preliminary injunction to get their jobs back right away.

By giving workers a fresh way to think about becoming part of a union – as a civil right, rather than just joining a special interest – the idea has a chance to re-awaken a conversation that has languished in American politics. The decimation of the American labor movement has been catastrophic for the middle class, keeping wages down and weakening the voice of middle-class citizens in the political process.

Research has long shown that labor unions boost the wages of members; in a recent paper with our colleague Mark Zuckerman, we estimate that the average nonunion worker could expect to accumulate an additional $551,000 in wealth over her career if she were in a union. Moreover, new research from the Center for American Progress shows that the effect last more than a generation: unions also boost social mobility for the children of union members. Even centrist economist Lawrence Summers recently argued that strengthening unions “has to be an important component of any realistic American inclusive growth agenda.”

The idea of employees being able to sue—known technically as a “private right of action”—isn’t new; we wrote about it in a 2012 book, and the WAGE Act echoes legislation introduced last year by Congressmen Keith Ellison and John Lewis. But now the idea has gone mainstream and is backed by the ranking members of the House and Senate labor and education committees – which suggests that the time may be right for it on the Presidential campaign trail

The lawsuit aspect of this is so important and it’s for the same that I propose international lawsuits against American corporations in Out of Sight. Corporations only respond to financial pressure or political pressure. Without the former, we are unlikely to get the latter. Voluntary standards, company unionism, greenwashing efforts, etc., never are going to create change that puts power in the hands of workers and citizens. Lawsuits can do that. Which is of course why Republicans hate trial lawyers so much.

Giving workers the right to sue employers for punitive damages if they are fired for organizing is an outstanding idea and I am very glad Democrats in Congress have introduced this bill. I hope Sanders and Clinton make public statements in favor of it very soon and that it becomes part of the conversation in the 2016 election. It’s not passing under a Republican Congress, but these are the ideas that can later be encoded into the law. Organizing around them now is a smart move.


[ 10 ] September 14, 2015 |


OSHA just faces a hard row to hoe in implementing silica standards or anything else. The reality is that OSHA has been battered between the political winds ever since its founding. Only during the Carter years was OSHA really empowered for making widespread change. The agency was created just before corporations began organizing themselves to more effectively fight the new regulatory regime Americans had demanded be place on them during the 1960s and 1970s. By the time it was up and running, business was already targeting it. Reagan slashed the budget and the agency has never recovered. Between the political problems and the difficulty of getting the science right in figuring out how to create new workplace safety standards, new programs to help workers stay alive move at a glacial pace if they move at all. We’ll see if Obama’s OSHA gets a silica standard through. It hasn’t even tried to recreate the ergonomics standard of the Clinton years that Bush dumped.

Nationalizing Walker’s War on Unions

[ 107 ] September 14, 2015 |


Scott Walker is desperate. He seems to think that his path to the nomination is highlighting his war on unions since that’s what made him famous. So his proposals:

The Republican presidential candidate’s proposal, which he plans to announce at an afternoon speech in Las Vegas, would eliminate the National Labor Relations Board, prohibit federal employee unions, institute right-to-work laws nationwide and repeal the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931, which requires the payment of local prevailing wages to workers on federal construction projects, often boosting pay and project costs.

Here is the full proposal.
A couple of thoughts. First, I am really skeptical that Republican primary voters actually care about unions. Very few Trump voters are going to move back to Walker because he wants to repeal Davis-Bacon. And, as Republican candidates are finding out through Trump’s right-wing populism, the economics beliefs of the party’s elite are not actually shared with any conviction by huge swaths of the base. So I am really skeptical that this will help Walker at all.

But the second point is perhaps more important, which is that no Republican candidates are likely to speak out against this either, meaning that the elimination of public sector unions, closure of the NLRN, national right to work, and the repeal of Davis-Bacon are probably on the agenda if the Republican Party controls the presidency and both houses of Congress. This is the position of a plutocrat class that doesn’t care what the public has to say anymore and while Walker might be their preferred choice, Rubio, Bush, and the rest outside maybe of Trump will follow along without too much fussing.

This Day in Labor History: September 11, 1851

[ 61 ] September 11, 2015 |


On September 11, 1851, African-Americans and abolitionist whites in Christiana, Pennsylvania engaged in violent resistance against a posse of slave catchers riding up from Maryland to retrieve fugitive slaves in the town. The so-called Christiana Riot demonstrated the growing division in the nation over the use of slave labor in the aftermath of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the increasing willingness in the North to actively resist incursions to recover slaves who had freed themselves from a life of bondage.

By 1850, slavery was beginning to dominate all facets of American politics. The Mexican War, where the United States engaged in an imperialist war to steal half of Mexico to expand slavery, outraged many northerners and hardened the partisan divides in the nation. Given that the South was largely thwarted in its slavery expansion when the California gold rush led to an influx of northerners who saw their new home as a white man’s state, when Utah was dominated by Mormons, and no one knew what to do with New Mexico, the South demanded more from the North in what became the Compromise of 1850. This was the Fugitive Slave Act. Ever since the nation was founded, slaves who could self-liberate did so by taking themselves and their labor into northern states in order to have freedom and earn money for themselves. Once across the Mason-Dixon Line, they were free, barring kidnapping which could happen but was relatively rare, although a 1793 fugitive slave law was on the books but almost totally unenforced. The Fugitive Slave Act ended this lax period and enabled southerners to reclaim their property no matter where in the North they lived.

For many northern whites, slavery seemed to threaten the future of white settlement of western land, widely considered to be the core of the American dream in the Jeffersonian agrarian perspective that was largely dominant at the time. The rise of free labor ideology that would strongly influence the early Republican Party combined with an increasingly awareness of the horrors of how slaves were treated to being move to move some, although not all that many even by 1860, northern whites into open alliance with African-Americans, helping their friends and neighbors maintain control over their own labor through their lives in the North.

This new situation frightened the many freed slaves throughout the North, especially given that most lived relatively near the Mason-Dixon line. Whether in Ohio or Maine, their freedom was now in serious danger. It was nearly impossible for slaves in most of the South to escape North because of the distance. But Lancaster County, Pennsylvania bordered Maryland. And so a lot of Maryland slaves hopped the border to a now-endangered freedom.

Near the end of 1849, four slaves owned by Bernard Goruch escaped from the Maryland plantation where they lived to Lancaster County. In 1851, Goruch discovered they were in Christiana. He went to Philadelphia on September 8, 1851 to get a warrant for their return, which was required in the Fugitive Slave Act. He then organized a posse of his friends and neighbors to go to Christiana and get the slaves back. The slaves had different ideas. They were living on the farm of William Parker, a freed slave himself. Parker had formed an organization to protect African-Americans from a local white group called the Gap Gang that kidnapped runaway slaves and sent them back to Maryland for money. Parker’s work to help slaves on the Underground Railroad and resist slaveholders had brought him to the attention of the Maryland planters.

When Gorusch, the federal marshal, and the posse arrived at Parker’s house, he was ready to resist. He refused to let the posse take the slaves. A shot rang out, Parker’s wife rang a bell, and blacks in the neighborhood as well as two abolitionist whites came to help out. A battle ensued that killed Gorusch and wounded his son. The posse retreated and that evening Parker and the four runaways fled to Canada. They did successfully reach that nation and true freedom.

The South and the Democratic Party in the North was outraged at this lawlessness in the North and demanded retribution. But the local juries disagreed. They did charge two dozen people with treason, riot, and murder. They tried of the white abolitionists, but the jury found him not guilty and the state dropped charges against everyone else. It is believed the jurors themselves wanted to make it clear that the state of Pennsylvania would not assist southern planters in the recapture of freed blacks.

But this was hardly an isolated incident. Rather, blacks and abolitionist whites through much of the North began actively resisting enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, making it largely moot in parts of the nation. Conceptions over which form of labor would dominate the country would continue dominating the politics of the United States through the 1850s. Abraham Lincoln’s half-slave and half-free construction was not just about human rights. It was about a labor system. Increasingly, the South was forcing the North to choose which labor system would dominate the nation. And while many northerners had no sympathy for and openly hated African-Americans, the threat of the slave power to dominate white people too moved a lot of support for Lincoln and the Republican Party.

The South of course was all-in on their system of slave labor and would commit treason to defend it in 1860 and 1861.

Thomas Slaughter’s Bloody Dawn: The Christiana Riot and Racial Violence in the Antebellum North is the most important book on this event.

This is the 157th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Origins of Right to Work

[ 24 ] September 10, 2015 |


At RI Future, I reviewed Cedric de Leon’s new book The Origins of Right to Work: Antilabor Democracy in Nineteenth-Century Chicago. An excerpt.

Scholars are beginning to rethink the Gilded Age through the framework of the New Gilded Age. Providence College sociologist Cedric de Leon is at the forefront of this movement in his new book The Origins of the Right to Work: Antilabor Democracy in Nineteenth-Century Chicago. He examines the origins of the “right to work” idea in the mid-nineteenth century, attempting to provide a historical background to formerly union states like Michigan and Wisconsin embracing a war on unions and implementing right to work legislation that allows public sector workers to opt out of union dues while forcing unions to continue representing them. Using Chicago as a case study, he explores how workers conceived of the challenges of the new capitalist economy as avoiding dependence on employers. Self-reliance and the shunning of dependence were central to the growth of American political culture and mythology in the first century after the Revolutionary War and this shaped working-class politics of the antebellum period.

As the nation moved toward the Civil War, fears over the expansion of slavery creating wide-scale dependence of the white working class to the planter class allowed the nascent Republican Party to initially recruit workers into the fight against the South, even as the party’s economic ideology rapidly developed into the pro-corporate mentality that would feed the Gilded Age upon the war’s conclusion. As Chicago workers felt betrayed that the war had spawned increasingly large corporate powers, they began organizing for workers’ rights, including an 8-hour day movement in 1867 and the famous strikes of 1886 that led to the Haymarket Riot, where an anarchist responded to police violence by throwing a bomb into a crowd of police.

The political parties responded harshly to this worker challenge through both ideological constructions and state violence, such as the execution of anarchist leaders after Haymarket. Elites twisted the ideas of freedom to fit an ideology revolving around the freedom of contract. In other words, unions were unnecessary and dangerous because they interfered with a worker’s right to sign a contract for a given wage he negotiated with his employer. Of course this ideology ignored the power relations between workers and employers, as well as the actual struggles of workers in Chicago to make a living but exploiting the working class was the point.

Union Children Do Well

[ 14 ] September 9, 2015 |


Who else is not at all shocked that the children of union families have higher social mobility as adults? Why, it’s almost like growing up in an economically stable household allows children to worry about things like school instead of homelessness!

A new study suggests that unions may also help children move up the economic ladder.

Researchers at Harvard, Wellesley and the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, released a paper Wednesday showing that children born to low-income families typically ascend to higher incomes in metropolitan areas where union membership is higher.

The size of the effect is small, but there aren’t many other factors that are as strongly correlated with mobility. Raj Chetty of Stanford and Nathaniel Hendren of Harvard, who pioneered this method of examining economic mobility, established five factors that are strongly correlated with a low-income child’s likelihood of making it into the middle class: the rate of single motherhood in an area, the degree of inequality, the high school dropout rate, the degree of residential segregation, and the amount of social capital, as measured by indicators like voter turnout and participation in community organizations.

Single motherhood is the most strongly correlated factor with mobility. The latest study, which relied on the Chetty/Hendren data, says union membership is roughly as strongly correlated with mobility as the other four factors.

The researchers looked at the expected income of people ages 29 to 32 whose parents were at the 25th percentile of income nationally when they were teenagers. They found that a 10-percentage-point increase in the rate of unionization in an area coincided with a rise of an additional 1.3 points on the income distribution as the average child becomes an adult.

Let’s take the example of the average metro area where about 16 percent of workers were unionized, and children whose parents were in the 25th percentile of income earners nationally ended up at the 40.7 percentile on average as adults. A simple application of the author’s finding implies that, in a metro area where 26 percent of workers were unionized, the average child from the same place in the income ladder would end up in the 42nd percentile.

The correlation remains statistically significant even when the researchers controlled for a variety of other social and economic variables, like the child poverty rate and median house value.

“I would have thought we could have found things that might have killed off the effects,” said Richard B. Freeman, a labor economist at Harvard who was one of the study’s authors. “And we basically didn’t.”

Obviously we need more studies along these lines, but it’s quite clear that union children do better as adults than non-union children.

Labor Day Rundown

[ 26 ] September 7, 2015 |


Rather than blog a bunch about Labor Day I took to Twitter, where I wrote a Twitter essay and a bunch of follow up stuff about my views on the history of American workers. The core tweets were storified and you might be interested in them.

Some other things of note today on labor.

Will Missouri go right to work? No one is sure.

Good for Obama ordering paid sick leave for federal contractors. Another point in his late-term actions for workers, other than that Trans-Pacific Partnership thing, which pretty much counters all of it.

Welfare no longer serves the poorest Americans.

Slate pulled a pretty good Labor Day #slatepitch by suggesting that anti-union Yuengling is a great beer to drink on this holiday.

There’s a lot of organizing happening in the Silicon Valley. Can’t happen fast enough.

Texas governor Greg Abbott is a terrible human.

Of course, this comes the same day yet another Texas worker died in a refinery. He was expressing his true freedom through death.

Here’s a 1981 ad from the International Ladies Garment Workers Union about buying union label clothing. Union clothing made in the U.S. definitely is part of history, sadly.

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